The rimpoche, 68, is considered to be the reincarnation of the monastery’s first lama. Thus he enjoys a level of comfort unknown to most of his followers. He sits on a cushioned sofa at a polished wooden table, with a bright reading lamp over his shoulder to illuminate his scripture and a hot plate to keep his tea warm. Feeling chilly at one point, he gestures silently to a younger monk, who wheels in an electric radiator and turns up the dial. When I ask the lama specific questions about Buddhist beliefs, he refers me to his website, www.tengboche.com.
And yet the rimpoche expresses considerable concern about the encroachment of modern ways on Sherpa traditions. “When the Sherpas were farmers, with yak and cow, our life was good,” he says. “Now most people are in the trekking business, and that business goes down or up based on outside events. Is this better?
“In the past we had no telephones here,” the lama goes on. “And it was no problem to be without a telephone. But now we have had telephones. We came to need them. Then when the telephone repeater was bombed [by the Maoists], suddenly it was a big problem to be without. Is this better?”
Yes, say most Sherpas I spoke with. The Sherpa people, they will remind you, have always used outside influences to their own advantage. “The fact that we were separated from the rest of Nepal, way up in our high country, made it easy for the Sherpas to preserve our culture,” says Ang Rita Sherpa, a graduate of the Khumjung school who now heads Hillary’s foundation, the Himalayan Trust, in Kathmandu. Over a steaming bowl of shakpa, a pungent potato stew, Ang Rita points out that, despite their remote geographic setting, the Sherpas kept open minds about ideas from the outside—maybe because they are outsiders themselves.
“Sherpa” means “person of the east.” The first Sherpas are believed to have walked from eastern Tibet in the 16th century, crossing the Nangpa La pass to reach the southern slopes of Everest. They settled in Khumbu and Pharak, in the valleys and precipitous canyons of the Bhote Kosi river and the Dudh Kosi or “milk river,” an apt name for a torrent that churns and foams like a vanilla milk shake in the monsoon months of summer. Gradually, many Sherpas moved into the lower, gentler hills of the Solu region south of Khumbu and Pharak, where milder temperatures make farming more productive.
In the remote villages of the Solu-Khumbu region, largely beyond the reach of the Hindu majority in lowland Nepal, the Sherpas formed a distinctive culture. Their language—still thriving today—has Tibetan origins. Their pervasive religious faith, the Nyingma sect of Mahayana Buddhism, promotes the idea of compassion for all human beings; thus the Sherpas developed a social structure much less rigid than the caste distinctions common among Hindu Nepalese. Tradition taught Sherpas that some of the mighty mountains just over their shoulders were the abodes of the gods, to be respected from afar but not intruded upon. And so for generations they never tried to climb Mount Everest or the other great Khumbu peaks—until the steady stream of “peak baggers” from the West made mountaineering a profitable enterprise.